There are many ways to improve service and provide the best bang for our transit dollars. You can improve or even remove low performing routes – that was essentially the focus on Metro’s September 2014 reductions. But, you can also tweak high performing routes and get either deliver increased service at the same cost or reduce service without reducing frequency. I’d like to take a stab at improving one of the most popular routes: the SoundTransit 550.
The 550 is responsible for 16% of SoundTransit’s boardings, with close to 10,000 rides a day. In rush hour, it runs as frequently as 11 times an hour. It is so popular, it is essentially being replaced with a light rail line in 2023. That’s still 8 years away, and there’s room to improve this busy route right now.
I propose replacing some of 550’s rush hour runs with a new 551 – a super express to Seattle. The 550 begins at the Bellevue Transit Center, makes a few downtown Bellevue stops and then goes down Bellevue Way to serve the S. Bellevue Park and onto Mercer Island, Rainier Freeway and Seattle. The great majority of people on this route are just going between Bellevue and Seattle and the intermediate stops just waste those people’s time and our transit dollars.
The 551 would start at Bellevue Transit Center, stop at one or two (though likely different than the 550) downtown stops and proceed directly to Seattle. That would allow the bus to get on the freeway at SE 8th St, using a queue jump and dedicated HOV exit lane to go directly from I405 to I90. Without traffic and stops this saves 4 minutes according to Google Maps), I suspect the actual savings are much larger. Skip the Mercer Island stop and the Ranier Freeway station and head directly to the tunnel and make the regular tunnel stops. Do the same on the return.
I’m not sure how many of the 550 runs could be converted to 551. You wouldn’t want to convert too many, as there are enough users of the South Bellevue Park & Ride and the western Bellevue stops near Bellevue Way who would miss out. But even if you convert just 1 trip per hour during rush hour, you improve the rides of hundreds of people and you might be able to squeeze out an extra run you couldn’t do otherwise.
Downsides? There are some. First, the confusion at least at first — it would be annoying if you got on a 551 bus looking for South Bellevue Park and ride and you end up in Seattle instead — though good outreach, driver announcements and signage could help. Also, you would get people used to the super express with no stops when the matching light rail service that opens in 8 years can’t match it. But light rail can also bypass the traffic the 550 gets stuck behind in Bellevue, so the effect might be a wash. And the traffic is just heating up — there a number of new towers going up in Downtown and the light rail construction will yield some serious traffic issues.
SoundTransit (and STB commenters), what do you say?